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The Luzhin Defence

Starring John Turturro and Emily Watson
Screenplay by Peter Berry
Based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Directed by Marleen Gorris

IN SHORT: Tremendous performance by John Turturro. [Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and thematic elements. 112 minutes]

For those who are not long time readers: Vladimir Nabokov was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, though his novels can sometimes be very difficult to read. We know. We studied enough of them in college. It is also long-standing policy of this site that you shouldn't have to read the Source Material to get enjoyment out of the filmed product, which is why we don't make those comparisons. If that's what you're looking for, look elsewhere.

That being said, no, this movie is not Nabokov. It is a clearly told tale of a grown chess prodigy, Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin (John Turturro) and Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson) the woman he quite unexpectedly falls for while in Italy for the World Chess Championship matches. Natalia isn't looking for love but it's quite clear that her mother (Geraldine James) would prefer a match with the French nobleman Jean de Stassard (Christopher Thompson). Stassard has looks, class, and money, all things that an exiled Russian upperclasswoman would need. Luzhin, with his ragged suit and distracted manner, looks like a man with only a tenuous grip on reality. That being the case, no one of the upper crust can understand why the man receives better service and standing ovations or why he isn't made to dress in tie and tails for dinner.

It is because Luzhin is, potentially, the Champion of the World.

"Sasha" Luzhin (Alexander Hunting) is the child of well to do parents. His father (Mark Tandy) and mother (Kelly Hunter) have relationship strained by the presence of Aunt Anna (Orla Brady), who seems more than a sister-in-law to dear old dad. Young Luzhin takes to the game of kings even as his parent's marriage began to crumble around him. We're not implying that his talent is sparked by emotional distress though it may have been amplified by a singular focus that locks out any emotion whatsoever. That kind of focus also explains Luzhin's personality and, perhaps, the radical change in his attentions once he sets eye upon, and hears the speaking voice of, Miss Katkov.

Mom summons Dad from Berlin to change Natalia's intentions. Champion Stassard is approached by Luzhin's ex-teacher and manager Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), who dumped his gravy train too early and wants revenge for his mistake; lots of subplot material here and all utilized to keep moving the primary story forward. Unlike many adaptations of novels, we got no feeling in our gut that "something" was missing in the big screen story.

We rarely see movies confident enough to allow a significant amount of action to two actors playing the same role at different stages. So, a tip of the hat to director Marleen Gorris who put the weight on Alexander Hunting's shoulders and to actor Turturro who delivers a bravura performance that amplifies everything that Hunting did. That's above and beyond the A-list kind of performance the man usually delivers.

Turturro's work so overwhelms everyone else that Watson never gets the chance to communicate to the audience exactly what it is she finds so attractive about the man. The Luzhin Defence is all Turturro's to win or lose. No, we're steering clear of even hinting what happens at the end of the movie 'cuz once the first surprise hits, the outcome is easily guessed -- and still as satisfying even if you've guessed correctly.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Luzhin Defence, he would have paid . . .


The Luzhin Defence, in comparison to other films that fill the arthouses is better than the average.

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